When gleaming photos of a new dumpling shop started popping up in the explore feed of my anonymous food Instagram account, I knew I had to double tap and investigate myself. Growing up on your mother’s Taiwanese home cooking, you’ll always want to challenge any authenticity claims.
After reading that Chop Chop TO is a family run restaurant, I instinctively knew it was more than just about food. Keeping it all in the family is fairly typical of a Chinese business, but this pointed to the universal love language of Asian parents who don’t show physical affection: I love you so I will help you and give you everything I can. The sacrifices and endless support replace those out the door pecks on the cheek and the audible “I Love You” phrase.
“I definitely did this for them,” Jenny Tiao, also known as Mama Tiao, says. “Firstly, this is my interest. Secondly, it’s to coordinate with my eldest son. He really likes cooking.”
Eric Tiao, Mama Tiao’s first born, is the chef at Chop Chop TO and can be spotted in the kitchen making pork guabao or serving up their signature appetizer of stacked cold cucumber pyramids. Kevin Tiao is the kitchen help and server, while Steven Tiao is the creative designer and the ad hoc server. The store, Steven says, was built out by Paul Tiao, their dad. For the family, the restaurant is not their only job, like Steven who works in advertising and clocks in at the restaurant after his full-time gig.
Situated on a corner lot with a larger than life mural of the shop’s name, Chop Chop TO is a Taiwanese restaurant feeding downtown Toronto patrons. With vaulted ceilings, the sun-drenched store looks even brighter with a white interior. This isn’t your stereotypical Chinatown joint with furniture from the early ’90s, but it isn’t sterile succulent shop either. Minimalist design with thoughtful attention to details, like the dark purple window frames on the second floor prep area that are modeled after the panes in Jiufen, a former mining town in northeastern Taiwan, are classic of Steven’s work.
The restaurant’s name, Chop Chop, alludes to speedy Taiwanese food. Cylinders of red lacquered chopsticks are on every table, with the accompanying soy sauce, chili sauce and vinegar, a mixture that’s of personal preference to make the perfect dumpling dip. Nostalgic blue and white dishware with majestic dragons that infiltrated many Asian households, which Chop Chop proclaims to have cleared off every dishware importer in Toronto, adds another hue of colour to the store’s aesthetics.
Across the street, Mama Tiao owns and operates a hair salon, a job she’s held down since she immigrated to Canada more than 20 years ago. A quick chat with her youngest son and I knew, like most Taiwanese families, she was the supportive beam holding down the fort at home and at work.
Mama Tiao’s life philosophy is easy: work hard and live simply. She’s never applied for unemployment a single day since arriving in Canada and everything she has, she’s earned.
While balancing the salon and Chop Chop TO, Mama Tiao runs on very little sleep, hand making dumplings and green onion pancakes until the sun peaks through on many days. She’d rather be working than living the retired life, she says.
Born into a Hakka family in Taiwan, Mama Tiao served in the hospitality industry before immigrating to Toronto by herself as a young woman with the dream of learning English. The intention was to return home to find a better job, she says, after familiarizing herself with the language.
Before her departure, Mama Tiao was treated to dumplings by her brother-in-law as a farewell meal. He even taught her how to make them, a tutorial that was necessary if she were to survive in a foreign country and in case homesickness sprung up.
“He made it sound so easy,” Mama Tiao says, gesturing to the folding of dumplings with her hands. “A pinch here and a pinch there.”
In Toronto, Mama Tiao met her husband, Paul, who’s family ran a well established northern Chinese restaurant in Toronto’s Chinatown, with very famous dumplings that had lines out the door.
“The most important thing isn’t the fancy name of the dish,” Mama Tiao says, “But rather how it tastes.”
“The green onion pancakes would be a lot more fragrant if we used lard,” she adds, as we discuss items on the menu. But for the sake of making their food more healthy and suitable for vegetarians, the flattened disks are pan fried until the exterior is extra crispy. Although the menu constantly changes, the Taiwanese fried chicken, beef noodle and fried green beans are a staple. With no added preservatives, the latest batch of minced turnip in the green bean dish was dried by Mama Tiao in her yard during a particularly sunny week.
“When people talk about being wealthy or poor, I don’t really care,” Mama Tiao says. “Having my three sons, I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world.”
Amy Chyan is a multimedia journalist and creative human based in Toronto, Canada. Previously, she was writing about all things Taiwan, nesting in Taipei and learning Taiwanese through osmosis.